14 April 2017

Monchy-le-Preux #nlpoli

Very few Newfoundlanders and Labradorians let alone very few Canadians have ever heard of Monchy-le-Preux.

People from St. John's might know of Monchy Street,  in the city's Rabbit Town neighbourhood. It is there alongside Suvla,  Cairo,  and Edinburgh Streets and a few others that seem to people unaware of Newfoundland's military past to have very little in common.

The streets are all connected to the Newfoundland Regiment during the Great War.  Suvla is where he regiment landed during the Gallipoli campaign.  Cairo is where it spent some time training before landing in Turkey.  Edinburgh is the city in Scotland where the Newfoundlanders mounted guard at the famous castle. Hamel, another street in that neighbourhood, refers to Beaumont Hamel, of course.

And Monchy is Monchy-le-Preux.

Monchy was part of a major British campaign in the spring of 1917 around Arras in northeastern France.  The British and French launched a combined offensive with an eye to breaking through the trench stalemate that developed on the western front in the fall of 1914.  The British objective was the ridge at Vimy, which looked out onto the Douai plain to the east.  They would push on to Cambrai and draw German reserves away from the French who planned to attack on their front, south of the British shortly after the British offensive began.

The Anglo-Canadian attack on Vimy Ridge, northeast of Arras,  took place at the start of the offensive on April 9.  The Newfoundlanders, fighting as part of 29th Division,  took part in the offensive to the southeast that launched the same day.   They arrived in the front on April 12 and took part in the offensive on April 14.

You can find some very good, readable accounts of Monchy online so there is no need to describe the battle here. For our purposes,  let's look at three things that might help to put the events of a hundred years ago into some context.

The men

First of all,  who was at Monchy?  For the most part,  the Newfoundland battalion that fought at Monchy was very different from the one that had fought at Beaumont Hamel the previous summer. Most of the soldiers from the the first day of the Somme offensive had been killed or wounded. The battalion had been rebuilt, as if from scratch,  through the rest of the summer of the 1916 from men in training in Scotland with the depot battalion and from new recruits who had joined after July 1, 1916.

The predominance of men from St. John's was less in 1917 than it had been two and a half years earlier. The Blue Puttees had been made up mostly of young men from the St. John's boys brigades. As Chris Sharpe noted in his 1988 overview of recruiting and enlistment for the Newfoundland forces, the pattern of enlistment was influenced heavily by the economy and by the social and political connection of the various parts of the country to the capital. St. John's had the supply of men most likely to be able to leave the family and go to war.  It also had the political environment that might pressure men to volunteer.

A typical British infantry battalion of the early part of the war was supposed to number a little over 1,000 men. The Newfoundland battalion at Monchy was roughly 60% of that.  This is a subtle but important detail.  It shows the difficulty the government had in recruiting as the war went on. In truth, as Chris Martin has showed, recruiting enough men had been a problem from the outset of the war but it was only in the fall of 1916 and early 1917 that the magnitude of the problem made itself widely felt.

What has been mentioned almost in passing by Sharpe and Martin, among others has been the rejection rates the recruiters encountered during the war.  From the outset,  about every second man who volunteered in Newfoundland found himself rejected for one reason or another.  No one has conducted a systematic assessment of the available data.  Sharpe notes that the British and others had similar issues with rejection rates, especially on medical grounds.  Sharpe notes that the British Army, for example,  lowered the height and chest requirement when the recruiting deluge of 1914 found the army turning away tens of thousands of otherwise fit men for being too small.  Out of that experience came a changed policy that allowed shorter men to enrol and thus were born the so-called bantam battalions.

Sharpe appears to have missed the significance of the fact that Cluny Macpherson,  Arthur Wakefield,  and the other medical officers assessed the 1914 Newfoundland volunteers not against the army standard but a Royal Navy Blue Book standard for recruits.  It set a smaller minimum chest size and a shorter height than the army standard.  G.W.L. Nicholson mentions in passing the fact that after a month of recruiting after the outbreak of war in 1914, 743 men had come forward to offer themselves for service but that only 250 - one third - had been accepted at that point.  The low number was not attributable entirely to administrative issues.

Martin offers a table (above) that shows the number of men enrolled and the number of men rejected in each year of the war. We can allow that Nicholson may have made a simple error in the numbers for 1914. We can also toss aside 1918 as Martin's figures only cover the period before the government imposed conscription in the spring on 1918.  But look at the figures for 1915, 1916, and 1917.  The number accepted and the number rejected is almost the same in each year and in 1917,  the rejects actually outnumbered the men accepted.

What you are looking at here seems to be something connected as much to the generally poor state of public health in Newfoundland at the time than to other factors.  A detailed examination is long overdue but there is more than enough reason to discount many of the generally-accepted reasons for the chronic recruiting problems in Newfoundland throughout the war.

The fighting

What were these men doing?

They were fighting, of course.

What you should notice about 1917,  though, is that the soldiers were fighting very differently than they had the previous summer.  In the summer of 1916,  the Newfoundlanders had been assigned the job of following on behind the initial assault.  They were supposed to carry tools,  ladders,  coils of barbed wire, and all sorts of equipment needed to prepare defences in what the planners assumed would be the captured German positions.

The Newfoundlanders trained to get up out of the trenches and organise themselves on the open ground before advancing at a walking pace toward the German lines.  They likely carried their rifles at the slope, as in this picture of soldiers advancing on the first day of the Somme.

The butt of the Short Magazine Lee Enfield is resting in the palm of their cupped hand, and the barrel with bayonet attached is pointed up and back at about a 45 degree angle. The soldiers are walking leisurely. 

They also trained to organise themselves in a formation called column of platoons. The whole battalion consisted of four companies, each of about 227 men.  The companies were made up of four platoons of about 50 men each,  with 27 men in an administration and support group.  The companies, in turn, broke down into four platoons plus a company commander and his team. The platoons likewise broke down into four sections of about a dozen men each.

When they organised into columns,  two companies would be in front and two more behind, forming a sort of square.  Within the company, they organised two platoons in front and two behind and within each of the platoons the sections filed alone one man behind the other.  Everyone had to keep a set distance from the man in front,  to the left and right, and behind and the groupings - section, platoon,  and company  - had to keep a set distance from one another.

The Newfoundlanders got up out of the trenches that July morning well back from the front line. They actually took some minutes to get sorted out and start walking. They took a few minutes to get into full view of the German positions and a few more to get to where the Germans had focused most of their weapons.  That's one of the reasons why written accounts of the battle describe an action that took about 30 minutes in total to decimate the battalion of a thousand men. They were spread out. They had to walk a bit of ways to get into the line of enemy fire.  There were quite a lot of them.

Had the Newfoundlanders come under heavy fire immediately on getting out of the trenches, the whole thing would have been over in a couple of minutes, not thirty.  With this image in your mind of men walking steadily onward,  you can also understand why other soldiers and officers observing frequently spoke of the discipline of the men.  The ones in the back saw what happened to the ones in front and kept going.

Subsequent descriptions of the battle, usually written by people with little knowledge of the details of the events, usually make it sound like the Newfoundlanders attacked. They didn't really. The Newfoundlanders went off and did what they were ready to do,  largely because, in the confusion of the moment, their brigade and divisional commanders thought that the first waves of soldiers had actually gotten in among the Germans and needed the reinforcements, as planned.  The Newfoundlanders were marched forward in a way that would have made it difficult for random surviving Germans to hit them.

The expectation was that everything had worked and the Germans were defeated in the front lines.  It was a different matter when the German lines had been scarcely touched by the long preparatory British bombardment.  But the officers in the heat of battle did not know that.  As a result, they executed the advance as planned not based on the events in front of them as they actually were.  And just to make it clear,  the Germans advanced in much the same way during the Michael offensive in early 1918.  The British had an easy time killing large formations of men as they moved across open ground. 

The order for the Newfoundlanders to advance came as a result mostly of confusion and inexperience, features that are all too common in war.  These conditions are often ignored by those who either have no experience of fighting or the military or who are not able to put themselves in the place of the men who faced the calamity of battle, alone among the multitude, with the dry mouth and churning bowels of fear and excitement.

The plan for the attack had a detailed template for the assault because most of the divisions in the attack had little, if any, experience on the western front.  In the British Army at the time, commanders were free to apply their own methods in place of those contained in formal orders, if the commander felt that local knowledge and circumstances made it necessary.

That's what happened in the division to which the Norfolk battalion belonged that day.  Among its junior officers was a fellow named Bernard Ayre from St. John's. His battalion attacked on July 1 by crawling out of their trenches while British artillery were shelling the Germans.  They got up close to the barrage and when it moved deeper into the German position according to a set timetable,  the Norfolks moved swiftly in behind it.  As a result,  they achieved their objectives with relatively few casualties.  Ayre died in the afternoon, as he and his men fought off a German counter attack.

Farther north,  Bernard's brother died in a completely different set of circumstances.  The men who had advanced ahead of the Newfoundlanders that morning had followed the template to the letter.  They'd waited until the barrage lifted to its second line.  In the event,  the Germans who had been in their protective bunkers had time to get  their machine guns into position as the attacking battalions advanced across open ground.  The staff officers and commanders above Bernard had known this sort of thing could happen and taken it into account. The men of the 29th Division and other British divisions did not and paid the price for their inexperience.

Not so at Gueudecourt in October 1916 and certainly not at Monchy. The Newfoundlanders at Gueudecourt had been trained to advance in section rushes. One team of 12 men fired while their partner section ran forward,  falling to the ground after a few yards and taking up firing so that the men who'd been covering them could move forward.  They did much the same thing at Monchy, when necessary, as the two companies leading the assault advanced in two waves behind a barrage of 18 pounder field gun shells.  The guns rained down fire 200 yards on the Newfoundlanders' side of the German line and then moved toward the Germans every four minutes, jumping 100 yards further on each time.

This sort of attack took a great deal of co-ordination among the the units involved, infantry and artillery alike, and required that the infantry soldiers push as close into the barrage as possible.
In many such attacks, the infantry lost men to their own fire but they could get onto their objectives with much fewer casualties overall.  The sort of attack mounted by the Canadians at Vimy Ridge was similar to this and not unique to the Canadians.  It represented the level of sophistication the British Army had attained generally by that point in the war.

The larger military story of Monchy is of an essentially British battalion (the Newfoundlanders) within an entirely British division that had gone from the muddle and slaughter of the Somme to coping with a complex engagement with lots of moving bits.  It demanded that the Newfoundlanders adapt quickly to changing circumstances. What they ran into at Monchy was a fluid defence and a return to a more open form of warfare. As Nicholson notes in The fighting Newfoundlander,  this was the first time that the British had faced the new German idea that involved holding the main defensive line of troops well back from the front.  They would wait until the British soldiers were well into the attack before striking swiftly, often moving so rapidly among the British positions that they could not call down artillery to help beat off the German attacks.

It's not surprising, in that context, that the Newfoundlanders suffered a second decimation of the battalion in heavy fighting.

The memory

What is surprising is that the battle is almost completely unknown to most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a century after it took place.  The story of the loss is striking but the 10 men who fought off the hundreds of Germans who attacked Monchy in the counterattack is, in itself, a stirring tale of courage against great odds.

Yet,  the official commemoration of the Great War has consisted almost entirely of one big event last summer.  A handful of officials gathered last Sunday, on the actual anniversary of the Vimy attack,  to lay wreaths at the National War Memorial in St. John's.

And that was it.

The general ignorance of Monchy-le-Preux is evidence of the extent to which the popular image of Newfoundland in the Great War is shaped entirely by a myth of victimisation concocted initially in the 1920s but taken up with great enthusiasm in the 1960s and afterwards.  It has nothing to do with the actual events of a century ago and everything to do with what some people believe about our current circumstances.

Monchy has also suffered a dearth of popular attention because it did not fit with the other aspect of the modern victim myth, namely that it did not coincide with a Canadian holiday. July 1 remains a potent local symbol  particularly among the professional and semi-professional martyrs because it happens to be Canada's national holiday. While Canadians celebrate,  they can mark the made-up holiday they call Memorial Day.  On its own, you see, Newfoundland's history before 1934 holds no interest for them. It only grips their vitals if it offers a chance to weaponise the topic in an ongoing war against a fantastic and entirely fictitious modern enemy.

The pseudo-nationalists have been left, therefore, with nothing to bemoan about Canada and Canadians in Monchy and so they pay it no heed.  The regiment had the good sense, you see, to get itself wiped out on Canada Day, thereby offering the ultra-victims a reason to pay attention to a event in a time they, generally, know nothing about.  The nationalist twist on the victim myth has no parallel at Monchy and so they leave it alone. If Canada continues to make a big deal of Vimy, though,  one could safely predict that Monchy Day will become second Memorial Day.

Events at Monchy-le-Preux a century ago are well worth remembering and studying. Newfoundland's experience of the Great War is a vein that would feed a much deeper and more mature understanding of our collective history. Hopefully, these three aspects have stirred you enough to go looking for more.